KABUL - The head of Afghanistan's armed forces said that in preparation for the withdrawal of foreign troops, his country was trying to sign up the companies currently working with United States and NATO forces to repair and maintain a significant portion of Afghan military and air force equipment.
"We are working with Americans (to get contracts with) those companies — that's companies, not the U.S. government or soldiers. And every company tries to make money. Therefore, they will join us and work, and if they don't, we need to replace them," General Mohammad Yasin Zia told VOA.
Afghanistan's military depends on thousands of foreign contractors to maintain high-tech equipment it has received over the years, and senior U.S. officials fear the Afghans lack the technical capability required to maintain it.
President Joe Biden announced April 14 that the United States would withdraw all forces from Afghanistan under a deal signed by the administration of former President Donald Trump with the Taliban last year.
While the Biden decision would miss the May 1 deadline for a complete pullout set in the Trump deal, Biden said the U.S. would start withdrawing its forces on that date and complete the pullout on September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Foreigners serving in nonmilitary roles, such as nondiplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors and people involved in maintenance or training, would also have to leave Afghanistan.
According to John Sopko, the U.S. inspector general monitoring spending in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army was carrying out only 20% of its own maintenance until December.
Of the highest concern is the maintenance of aircraft that U.S. officials think cannot survive for long without this support.
"No Afghan airframe can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months in the absence of contractor support," Sopko told an audience at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in March.
Air support has often been the deciding factor during intense fighting between the Taliban and government forces.
"A Taliban offensive on Kandahar City last October — as peace negotiations were ongoing — may well have succeeded were it not for U.S. air support," Sopko said at CSIS.
General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie Jr., the U.S. Central Command leader of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, told journalists the U.S. was looking for alternatives to help "Afghans and their maintenance effort from a distance."
Some of those alternatives could involve videoconferencing or other televised means of interaction.
"We want them to be successful; that remains a very high priority," he said. "So we will look at innovative ways to do that. We're still working those out right now."
An Afghan maintenance crew is already using some of those communication tools to aid their work.
"We already have with our contractors WhatsApp, and Messenger, and also VTC. We have to do it," said Colonel Abdul Fatah, the head of Afghan air force maintenance group.
Under questioning from journalists, McKenzie acknowledged that providing maintenance help is going to be a lot harder to do once the U.S. is out of the country.
Fatah insisted that his maintenance crew of about 1,600 had the situation under control.
"For now, we are able to do our inspection and maintain our aircraft, but the main problem is that we need logistic and spare part support," he said.
When questioned on the maintenance of some of the bigger or more high-tech aircraft, such as the C-130 cargo planes, Fatah confessed that his team needed outside help.
"Yes, but they promised us they will support us," he said.
Afghan efforts to hire foreign companies were only "exploratory in nature at this point," according to a U.S. defense official who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.
"I'm not sure if the contractors, many of whom are American citizens, would like to stay here without U.S. military presence," the official said.
In anticipation of deteriorating security after May 1, several Western embassies, including the U.S., U.K., and Canada, have issued warnings to their citizens to avoid all travel to Afghanistan. The U.S. has also ordered all government employees who can perform their duties from elsewhere to leave the country.
U.S. officials have publicly expressed concerns about an increase in Taliban attacks if efforts to reach a negotiated settlement fail. Ongoing peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha have stalled, and the Taliban recently refused to attend a multinational conference in Turkey designed to aid the process.
"If we withdraw and no deal was made with the Taliban, I think the government of Afghanistan is going to be in for a very stiff fight to retain possession" of towns and cities, McKenzie told the Los Angeles Times newspaper last month.